The most successful pre- and post-show activities that I have seen occurred this past March during Write Now, the playwriting symposium formerly known as the Bonderman. Write Now is a national effort to advocate for playwrights and promote the development of new work for young audiences. It culminates in the weeklong development of four new plays followed by a weekend conference in which the plays are shared for the first time with an audience. As part of the development process, each playwright is paired with a school group in order to solicit feedback from the target audience of the piece. During Write Now 2013, I served as the main contact for these school groups.
One of the groups we partnered with was a fifth and sixth grade drama club. The teacher was excited about participating in this unique experience, but faced a few challenges initially. Due to many scheduling factors, she was unable to take her drama class out of school during the time of the conference. She needed to figure out how to assemble a group of students who could travel after school and how to get the field trips approved by the principle. So, she devised an after-school program that mimicked the Write Now process.
First the teacher talked with her students about playwriting – all the “how”s and “why”s of creating a script from scratch. Then, after approval from the principal and parents, she met with her students after school to work on their own new plays. Those students began to experience the development process first hand at Write Now. They came to the first reading of a play on Saturday morning, and the Write Now playwright and her team traveled out to the school on Tuesday to have a feedback session based on the first reading. The students drew pictures of their favorite moments, asked questions about moments that confused them, and answered the playwright’s questions about the draft. The playwright then returned to the rehearsal room with her team to refine the script, incorporating the students’ feedback. The class returned for the public reading of the play to see how it had changed, and after the reading, the playwright conducted another feedback session with the students. Students answered questions and responded to changes they saw from the first reading as well as asked their own new questions about the piece. Those students were able to take what they had learned from Write Now and lead their own development workshops with fellow classmates, hold in-school play readings and solicit feedback from their audience.
All of this makes me wonder: how else can production companies simulate their own processes in schools? As theatre artists, we often learn by observing; we look for inspiration in the life happening around us and in the artistic works of others. So why not do the same with young people? Why not grow our own audiences, allowing them to imitate our processes for production? These drama club students were directly involved in the theatrical process of Write Now, and seemed to gain a much greater understanding of the play, which to me is the goal of productions. We can do no better than to connect our audience to our plays in a way that changes their understanding of life and themselves.